Graded on a Curve:
The Kinks,
Muswell Hillbillies

Celebrating Ray Davies on his 78th birthday.Ed.

Ah, the Kinks. Of all the great bands to come out of England in the 1960s, they were by far the most English. Their music hall inclinations and deadpan irony simply didn’t translate, and until they reconstituted themselves as a hard-rocking touring band in the 1970s their only claims to fame here in the U.S.A. were “You Really Got Me” and “Lola.” Ray Davies was simply too smart, and had his tongue too far in his cheek, to win over U.S. fans, although I do remember—because it was, I think, the first 45 rpm record I ever heard—my older brother’s copy of “Apeman.” Nor did it help that the band was refused permits by the American Federation of Musicians to tour the U.S. for 4 years, ostensibly due to over-the-top on-stage band mate on band mate violence.

Of course, the Kinks always had their Kultists, people who lovingly cuddled their copies of 1968’s The Village Green Preservation Society the way you might your dog Blighter. As for the rest of us, we listened to our Beatles and our Stones and The Who, and the rest of England be damned. This was especially true if you were raised, the way I was, in a rural outpost of provincialism, where the Klan once marched through town and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was considered the pinnacle of pop sophistication.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I was a real latecomer to Ray Davies and Company, but have come to love their music, including Muswell Hillbillies. It’s one of the bleakest and funniest albums I know, and it deals with a subject that I hold near and dear to my heart—namely, the failure of everything. Tormented character follows tormented character on this LP, and I can’t get enough of it. Davies sings about paranoia, rampant alcoholism, and the myriad other complications of life, all from a working class perspective. Only Randy Newman could compete with Davies in the hilarious downer department, and while I prefer Newman, Davies more than holds his own.

Formed in Muswell Hill London in 1962 by Ray and his brother Dave Davies, the Kinks—talk about your more innocent times, but when they came up with their name it actually aroused controversy—mixed R&B, the English music hall, folk, and pop. 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies was their 10th studio LP, and the first to feature the rhythm section of John Dalton on bass and backing vocals and Mick Avory on drums and percussion. It also boasted a horn section composed of Mike Cotton on trumpet, John Beecham on trombone and tuba, and Alan Holmes on saxophone and clarinet. Oh, and John Gosling contributed on keyboards.

The LP opens with the great “20th Century Man,” and its singer is a character who would much rather be elsewhere: “I’m a 20th Century man/And I don’t want to die here.” Too many aggravations, too much insanity, you name it. The tune chugs along, with lots of acoustic guitars and some great muffled drums, as Davies wonders whatever happened to the green and pleasant fields of Jerusalem. There’s a great jam featuring organ and guitar towards the end, while Davies sings, “Girl we gotta get out of here/We gotta find a solution.” Davies seeks escape in England’s hallowed past but that past is long gone, replaced by a “mechanical nightmare” and a “welfare state ruled by bureaucracy.”

And things get worse on the musical hall inspired “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoid Blues,” in which the singer—yet another victim of the dismal present—sees conspiracy everywhere (“Well the milkman’s a spy/And the grocer keeps on following me/And the woman next door’s an undercover for the KGB”) while the horn section blares Dixieland style and Gosling plays some great piano.

“Holiday” reminds me of a Randy Newman tune in so far as it’s one of those songs where it’s just as important as what Davies leaves out as what he puts in. The song moves at a lackadaisical pace while the singer sits on the beach, ostensibly enjoying a holiday in the sun. But there is no sun, the sea is a polluted morass, and the singer continually returns to the “they” who sent him on his holiday, giving one the strong suspicion that what he’s calling a holiday is in reality a hoped-for cure to his insanity. The song is quiet, the singer resigned, and the accordion is a nice touch, as is Gosling’s great piano.

“Skin and Bones” is a novelty song about a fat woman who takes her dieting too far, and who used to weigh sixteen stone but now “her sisters and brothers and couldn’t see her when she walked by/You can’t see her walk by.” The tune bops along pleasantly to some excellent guitar as Davies sings, “She don’t eat no mashed potatoes only takes the best fat burner/She don’t eat no buttered scones/Stay away from carbohydrates/You’re gonna look like skin and bones.”

“Alcohol” is more music hall, with Davies telling the woeful story of one man’s plummet into alcoholism thanks to a floozy who “left him lying on Skid Row/A drunken lag in some Salvation Army mission/It’s such a shame.” The horns stagger on like an inebriated man trying to avoid falling into the gutter, and they play a wonderful instrumental as testimony to a man whose final words are, “Sad memories I cannot recall/Who thought I would fall/A slave to demon alcohol.”

The songs all reinforce the idea that there’s no escape—either through alcohol or dieting or a holiday at the beach—from the “Complicated Life,” which is one of the album’s highlights and a catchy mid-tempo number sung by a character who finds life too difficult by far. He seeks to find peace by letting go of his middle class trappings only to discover that life is every bit as complicated at the bottom of the food chain. I love it when he speaks the lines, “You’ve got to turn and face it/Life is so complicated” almost as much as when he cries, toward the song’s end, “Life is overrated/Life is complicated/Must alleviate this complicated life.” Meanwhile the backing singers sing “la di da” and the guitar plays a variant on good old-fashioned country honk.

“Here Come the People in Gray,” which is dominated by some bloozy guitar, harmonica, and those muffled drums, takes us back to the opening tracks, because the gray people are seemingly out to accompany the singer to the nearest insane asylum. Or perhaps they’re just taking him to his new home, because the state is demolishing his old one and relocating him to some new but equally grim counsel black elsewhere. The guitar riff gets bigger and better—it reminds me of the Rolling Stones, actually—as something happens that happens nowhere else on the LP. Namely, the singer vows, no matter how absurdly, to “fight a one man revolution, someway/Gonna start my rebellion today.”

“Have a Cuppa Tea” is a quaint little tune, country tinged, about the restorative powers of England’s favorite non-alcoholic beverage. Nowhere will you find a more religiously inspired—the song comes complete with numerous hallelujahs—ode to Earl Gray, even if Davies cleverly substitutes the kindly grandmother looking to ply you with the stuff into a screaming and shouting shrew. And his final lines are right over the top: “Whatever the situation, whatever the race or creed/Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree/It knows no motivations, no sect or organization/It knows no one religion, nor political belief.” As a send-up of a sacred British tradition it’s wonderful, and Davies sings the whole thing with a straight face.

“Holloway Jail” is a rollicking number but a lyrical bummer, telling as it does the sad tale of the singer’s girl, who ends up in gaol after falling in with “a spiv named Frankie Sims” who lets her take the fall for a crime he committed. The guitars are great, and then those muffled drums come in followed by some female singers, who spell out the ravages of her imprisonment. It’s not my favorite number on the LP, but it’s followed by the song that is, namely “Oklahoma U.S.A.” It’s a deliriously lovely ballad in which Davies, accompanied by accordion and piano, sings about his girl, who seeks to escape her intolerably grim lot in life by disappearing into the fantasy world of the film Oklahoma! Davies has to be the only songwriter ever to name-drop Shirley Jones (the Partridge Family’s hot mom!) and Gordon MacRae, both of whom starred in the film.

To a melody that will make you swoon, Davies sings, “All life we work but work is a bore/If life’s for livin’ what’s livin’ for/She lives in a house that’s near decay/Built for the industrial revolution/But in her dreams she is far away/In Oklahoma U.S.A.” Meanwhile, the gritty and mid-tempo “Uncle Son”—which boasts some truly great slide guitar by Dave Davies—is about a hard-working man who loves with his heart and works with his hands, but is a pawn in everybody’s game: “Unionists tell you when to strike/Generals tell you when to fight/Preachers tell you wrong from right/They’ll feed you when you’re born/And use you all your life.” I especially like the ambiguous and slightly mocking chorus (“Bless you uncle son/They won’t forget you, when the revolution comes”) both because who knows what the revolutionaries will make of the passive worker and besides, you’d have to be a fool to think there’s a more than million in one chance of a revolution coming staid Olde England’s way.

The closing track “Muswell Hillbilly” is definitely of the country honk school of English rock, and bears a more than passing melodic resemblance to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s great “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” The song kicks along at a rustic pace as Davies, who plays the male counterpart to the girl in “Oklahoma U.S.A.,” sings in a voice resembling that of Mick Jagger in “Dead Flowers” about how they’re going to move him—against his will, as in “Here Come the People in Gray”—to some “identical little boxes” in Muswell Hill.

He says goodbye to his girl with her “bloodshot and alcoholic eyes” and sings about how he’s a “Muswell hillbilly boy/But my heart lies in old West Virginia/Never seen New Orleans, Oklahoma, Tennessee/Still I dream of those Black Hills that I ain’t never seen.” It’s a great tune, on a par with the Rolling Stones’ best countrified songs, and the perfect ending to an album about the hopeless travails of the urban impoverished, who are powerless and who feel, like the singer of “The Contenders” does in Muswell Hillbillies’ predecessor Lola vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1, as if they’ve “gotta get out of this life somehow.”

Davies, unlike any other rocker of the era I can think of, suffered from a critical case of existential nausea based solely on his time and place. Everything sickened him, as he makes abundantly clear in a series of songs that form a sort of English counterpart to the irony-laden and simultaneously dark and funny tunes on Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys. He hates the 20th Century so much he doesn’t even want to die in it, and everywhere he looks he sees people looking to get out, to escape, but they’re every bit as broke as the dystopian welfare state they live in and there’s nowhere to go but madness or their own little fantasy worlds. Why, the very sea surrounding England’s green and pleasant land is a polluted nightmare.

Muswell Hillbillies is a definite product of its surroundings, and England was lucky—although I’m sure it would just as soon forget—to have as jaundiced and gimlet-eyed a chronicler as Ray Davies to limn its bleak and mirthless reality.


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